Artist Activist

Deconstructing a Classic: Seattle Rep's Missed Opportunity

This year is the centennial of Arthur Miller’s birthday and in his honor, the Seattle Repertory Theater chose to produce his Greek-tragedy-inspired A View from the Bridge as the opener for their 53rd season. The program notes from the production state that View is:

A classic tragedy of love, passion, and betrayal set in Red Hook Brooklyn in the 1950s...about the unknowable forces that drive us and the human will in the fight with destiny….At its heart, View is a tragic story of one man’s fall from grace that underscores issues of family, immigration and love in times of turmoil. Fast forward to today and the headlines are full of modern tales of the perils and complexities of immigration be it Syria, Europe or here in America.

Appealing to the audience’s desire for relatability of material, these notes deem the play a love story and liken illegal immigration by Italians in the 1950s to today’s Syrian refugees. The audience is encouraged to accept the story of protagonist Eddie Carbone as an American allegory of an Everyman succumbing to his fatal flaw: unable to control his unknowable nature, he is the catalyst for his own destruction. This is a dangerous practice. By prescribing ‘universal’ meaning to this work, the Seattle Rep assumes their audience is homogeneous and has, since the 1950’s, remained unchanged in their social ideologies. What happens then is: the story of one man’s demise as the result of his obsessive sexual desire for his niece becomes an American classic.

The arc of the play is relatively straightforward. Set in Red Hook, Brooklyn, View focuses on an Italian American family: Eddie Carbone, wife Beatrice, and Catherine, their 17 year old niece. They welcome into their home illegal immigrants Rodolfo and Marco. As Catherine and Rodolfo begin a romantic relationship, Eddie’s sexual desire for Catherine (visible to all but himself) results in jealousy, prompting him to alert Immigration Offices. Honor-redeeming Marco ends up killing Eddie in the street. Italian-American lawyer Alfieri narrates and attempts to make clear the greater social and moral implications of the story.

A staging of this play in 2015 requires the producing artists to undertake a rigorous investigation of current dominant ideologies regarding gender and power. Written in the 1950s, the text reflects the gender roles of that period: men are figures of authority, women are passive. Within this social construct of power there is a dangerous double standard: expected to be deferential to men and blocked from independent decision making, women are still held culpable for men’s actions. A discerning audience member would note that gender constructs operate in much the same way today. We are (still) a patriarchal society and View is a rumination on the masculine crisis. Eddie views himself as an authoritative, father figure and he deems it his right to control others around him. When he is unable to control Catherine, he is unable to fulfill his masculine role.

Why is this masculine crisis story presented as an American classic? Close observation of the classic American theater canon reveals that the work is comprised of mostly male playwrights. As Jill Dolan states in her book The Feminist Spectator as Critic this hegemony of male artists means our cultural works are primarily invested in a masculine perspective and our American “classics”  are male-centric narratives. This relegates female perspectives to a secondary position, more often than not portraying women as masculinist fantasy instead of subjects or agents. This is an example of patriarchal cultural domination. By presenting this play as an “American classic”  the Seattle Repertory Theater is perpetuating the practice of patriarchal cultural domination in the world of theater.

The text of the play doesn’t change. Rodolfo will always be blonde, Beatrice and Catherine will always feel partially responsible for Eddie’s death, and narrator Alfieri will always be there to expound on the social and moral implications of everyone’s actions. But the audience has changed since the the play’s debut, and will continue to change each time it’s produced. How they understand the world around them--and how they place Eddie’s journey in the context of their own life--has changed. One line in the program notes could have made all the difference in acknowledging this change. For example: “At its heart, A View from the Bridge is a male-centric narrative, reflective of the misogynistic, xenophobic landscape of the 1950s”. One sentence would do many things: begin a much needed deconstruction of what the “American classic” really is, serve as a call to action for equitable representation of diverse race and gender narratives on stage, allow space for relatability to happen organically instead of being narrowly prescribed. Most importantly, one sentence in the program notes could articulate what Arthur Miller’s play really is today: a warning of the impending irrelevance of the heteronormative Anglo male narrative as the “classic” narrative for an audience that is demanding gender and racial equity on stage and in real life.